Contrast & Conserve
– Anaximander’s Apeiron & the Infinite Space of Possibility –
Most of the Ionian Greek philosophers were monists — they believed the world is ultimately one thing, composed of a single substance. Thales (c. 600 BC), for example, believed everything comes from water.
There are of course some immediate problems with this conjecture, like the problem of creating fire from water. But Thales’ student Anaximander (c. 546 BC) quickly recognized this problem, and then expanded it to try and figure out how all opposites can exist together — wet and dry, hot and cold, light and dark.
If opposites are to exist, Anaximander thought, the original substance, the substance from which all things are created and into which all things perish, must be entirely neutral. It must be indefinite, lacking any particular qualities of its own. It can’t be composed of any thing.
Anaximander therefore postulated a metaphysical non-thing called the apeiron— or the unbounded; something akin to the conservation of the whole, something akin to the equal sign in mathematics, akin to ‘emptiness’ in Buddhist philosophy, akin to the Dao in Taoism.
In short, Anaximander’s apeiron is the ultimate reality, free from time, free from space, free from growth and decay, free from birth and death. It is the non-existent that holds the existent, that holds the world of appearances, the world of things, the relative world, the world of opposites, the world of birth and death, of growth and decay.
“Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
As is the order of things;
For they execute the sentence upon one another
– The condemnation for the crime –
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.”
The Boundless, then, is not only the ever-changing, ever-flowing fountain from which everything ultimately springs, but is also the yawning abyss (comparable to Hesiod’s “Chaos”) into which everything ultimately fades. Infinite worlds, Anaximander believed, are created and destroyed here in the apeiron.
Anaximander reminds us, though, that because it doesn’t have any particular qualities of its own, we can only speak of it vaguely. It just is. It is the world that lies forever behind the world of appearances.
[Note: Perhaps not Anaximander but Thales should be credited with this new idea of the boundless. Diogenes Laërtius ascribes to Thales the aphorism: “What is the divine? That which has no origin and no end” (DK 11A1 (36)).]
The Ionians | Ultimate Reality vs Appearances
Another Greek philosopher named Heraclitus (c. 535 BC) picked up on Anaximander’s problem of opposites and proposed a similar, though perhaps, more poetic solution: the Everlasting Fire.
Heraclitus arrived at this solution after noticing a deep paradox in nature. The world appears to be filled with things, he said. Yet all these things change in time, even if we don’t perceive the change directly. Winds blow, rivers flow, and children grow. Even something as stable as a bronze cauldron eventually rots away. So how, Heraclitus wondered, can something change, yet remain the same?
This problem led Heraclitus to propose that, in truth, there are no things, but rather only a single and continuous process. The world is on fire, he claimed. Those who look, but do not think, believe that only the fuel burns, while the bowl in which it burns remains unchanged. And yet the bowl burns; it is eaten up by the fire that holds it.
Fire, Heraclitus asserts, is the primary substance. And the apparent stability of things is merely an illusion due to a transition in opposites:
“Life and death, being awake and being asleep, youth and old age, all these are the same…for the one turned round is the other and the other turned round is the first…. The path that leads up and the path that leads down are the same path…. For God all things are beautiful and good and just, but men assume some things unjust, and others to be just…. It is not in the nature or character of man to possess true knowledge, though it is in the divine nature.” — Heraclitus
Everything, then, is like a flame — which though it has a shape, is actually just a part of one continuous stream of change. Only in the eyes of us mortals do opposites appear different. But, in Truth and for God, they are one — the Everlasting Fire.
Mad props to Heraclitus for his originality and deep skepticism of common sense. But there is a logical inconsistency in his solution. If opposites are identical and all things are one, then isn’t change, by definition, impossible?
Heraclitus’ younger contemporary Parmenides (c. 514 BC) thought so. He denied it completely and instead argued that the world is one unchanging spherical block. (Einstein’s theory of relativity is a Parmenidean worldview.)
Parmenides arrived at this conclusion by way of something like a logical proof. He drew his conclusion from the tautology only what exists, exists. And, from here, he drew the logical consequence that the nonexistent, therefore, cannot exist. And, since coming into being and perishing each require the nonexistent — that is, what once wasn’t and what someday will not be — change is impossible. The world is full, then. It is a timeless, uniform, and unchanging spherical block.
Damn! What’d ya do with that? Especially considering that he was the first to deduce a conclusion from a tautology or analytic statement like that. His conclusion seems almost fool-proof. Yet it’s completely absurd. One just needs to look around to see the world change. How, then, could he have possibly reconciled his unchanging block universe with our perception of change?
This, I believe, is what led Parmenides to distinguish between Truth (alêtheia) and Opinion (doxa). Though Heraclitus (and Xenophanes) had vaguely distinguished true reality from the world of appearances, Parmenides appears to be the first to explicitly formulate a criterion to cut through the world of appearances and get at Truth — that is, divine and unshakable knowledge.
Truth, he argued, can be obtained only through logic — by deducing conclusions from premises that are certain, like the tautology only what exists, exists.
Taken alone, though, Parmenides’ way to Truth is inadequate. It not only leaves the world of apparent change unexplained. But it undercuts Parmenides’ own remarkable discoveries — namely, that the earth and moon are spherical; that the moon receives its light from the sun; and that the phases of the moon are really just a play of light.
In order to reconcile his unchanging block universe with the appearance of change, then, Parmenides developed the notion of Opinion. Our senses, he argued, deceive us into believing in opposites like light and dark when in fact there is no such thing as opposites because, once you admit that something exists, you can’t say that it — light, say — once was its opposite — dark — or vice versa. Again, such a claim would require the non-existent — what wasn’t or what one day will not be. There is only what is. And what is, just is. It can’t have a beginning or an ending in time. It can’t change or move. Light cannot become dark. It just is light.
The Problem of Truth & Understanding
The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better…
These things we learn are like truth.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.
-Xenophanes (c. 570–478 BC)
Another Greek and contemporary of Anaximander, Xenophanes, in a few short verses, not only highlighted the conjectural nature of human knowledge. But he designed an elegant theory of objective knowledge. He knew that, though we could never be certain about our knowledge of it, a real world nevertheless exists — an objective world with definite properties — and that through seeking we may come to understand it better. That is, by engaging in a creative and critical discussion, we can move ever so humbly nearer to truth.
Most often, when we think about epistemology, or about the theory of knowledge, we think strictly in terms of the physical sciences. But our world is not merely physical. Everything we know and everything we can know is a product of our minds — the world we know directly is a mental and spiritual world. So, when we consider epistemology, let us not leave out all the juice, all the substance. Let us consider the world of thought and emotion, let us consider our social frameworks and relations, our laws and institutions, our feelings and experiences.
The method we use to seek understanding, however, will be the same. Our minds are infinitely creative, the dharma is infinitely creative. And these creations take place in an unbounded and infinite space — call it the Apeiron, Awareness, the Cosmos, God, the Big Mind, the Source, or whatever. But, when it comes to understanding our heart and minds, because God deals in infinities, we must take the same approach as we do in the physical sciences — that is, a continuous cycle of trial and the elimination of error.
Just consider, we each have prejudices — racial prejudices, class prejudices, religious and spiritual prejudices, sexual prejudices, academic prejudices, the list goes on. So, what is important about the science of the mind, then, is that it criticizes these prejudices with the underlying aim of trying to falsify them, with the aim of finding holes in our beliefs, religious or spiritual. It can show, through criticism, how dependent and false these prejudices are, after which we can attempt to improve upon or eliminate them. But it can never prove anything to be True.
Please, be aware of the pedestal on which you stand. Stay humble. Scientific or spiritual laws can never be proved, neither by experiements, nor by logical deduction, in an infinite space of creativity. All theories are conjectures, they are guesses, ingeniously conceived hypotheses, which can never be translated into Ultimate truths.
We must proceed differently. Rather than prove something as true, we must try to show the falsity of a theory — we must try to prove it wrong, as the humble philosophical giant Karl Popper says. If an error is found, then the conjecture is untrue, and we must create a new idea or hypoethesis that avoids this possible error and brings a bit closer to truth. (This was the underlying theme of Popper’s revolutionary book the Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was published in 1934.)
One good and interesting example to demonstrate Popper’s point, though in the physical realm, is Einstein’s theory of gravitation. One consequence of Einstein’s theory — one deduction — is that light coming from a distance star to the earth will be deflected near the sun, at a measurement different than Newton’s theory provides, which Einstein calculated under a certain condition.
Now, you normally can’t see a star when it is close to the sun. But Einstein realized that during a solar eclipse, when the moon is in front of the sun, one could photograph the stars around the sun and compare it with a photograph taken of the same group of stars without the sun. One just needs to take a picture of the same group of stars six months later when the sun isn’t in the location of the stars.
This was done by Eddington in 1919. The cluster of stars where the sun was expected were photographed six months before the solar eclipse. And then during the solar eclipse the same cluster of stars were recorded when they were near the sun. And it turned out that the stars were exactly where Einstein’s theory had predicted them to be.
Amazing! Einstein’s theory of gravity moved us closer to the truth from Newton’s theory. And we know, as did Einstein, that there are still holes in Einstein’s theory, as evidenced by the quantum realm.
No theory, no belief, whether physical, spiritual, or religious, is the ultimate truth. In the Space of Possibility, out there beyond the Wall of Ignorance, there will always be an infinite space of the unknown, unexplained, and unimagined that are cloaked by darkness.
The Way Forward | A Plea to Determinists
Anaximander’s Apeiron, in my conceptual framework, is the Space of Possibility— it encompasses the infinite states of being, of experience, of understanding.
The world is open. Life is open. Experience is open.
Not only our physical laws, but also our social, spiritual, and mental laws, in order to capture the infinite Space of Possibility, must shift from a closed, deterministic framework to an open, indeterministic one.
Remain open. Remain free.
Embody a lasting peace,
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